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Fırsatı Yakala Turkey: non-violent communication in violent times

By Hatice Yildirim (coordination team of Take the Chance – Fırsatı Yakala, the Theodor-Heuss-Kolleg cooperation programme in Turkey)
military coupIn its fifth programme year in Turkey, the Take the Chance – Fırsatı Yakala coordination team had planned to have a special educational year for the participants and alumni. Our Kick-off Seminar was supposed to take place 14-20 July 2016 in Siirt, Southeast of Anatolia. When we facilitators arrived on 12 July for preparations, there was already a big fear because the Eastern part of Turkey was not so safe. In the beginning, everything was kind of normal, and although the last months in Turkey had passed with a lot of social problems, conflicts and terrorists attacks the participants were very motivated to attend the first seminar of the year.
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Each town or village can be the center of the world | Ukraine

Interview by Svitlana Oslavska with Olga Diatel and Alona Karavai, translated by Liubov Hryb. 

UkraineLab is an interdisciplinary platform for effective and sustainable networking, which creates space for dialogue between active representatives of different sectors of society in Ukraine.
In 2015 two forums were organised by UkraineLab. One in Kiev devoted to the best solutions for culture and civil society in post-crisis periods, the second one in Ivano-Frankivsk with focus on peace building strategies. This year the activities will be continued and new meetings will be arranged. In April UkraineLab will be held in Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. Alona Karavai and Olga Diatel, coordinators of the programme, explain specifics and characteristics of UkrianeLab, this year’s topics and expectations.

What is UkraineLab in brief?
Alona Karavai: UkraineLab is an interdisciplinary platform for smart networking and cross-sectorial cooperation of change makers as well as a think tank where visions and innovations for civil society and culture can be born. With UkraineLab we also create a safe space for people to share, to exchange about and to collect all kind of practices of local development and to test them where they may be the most necessary at the moment.
Olga Diatel: UkraineLab is a space where you can develop new professional relations and partnerships, which will make your work more effective in the future.

What impressions did you get after the first meetings in 2015 so far?
Olga Diatel: I was skeptical about the large number of people we planned with to take part. It is not easy to ensure an efficient process in such kind of situations. Yet at the first forum we managed to create an atmosphere of openness, personal responsibility and everyone was very cooperative. Our aim and the aim of UkraineLab is to build a network of people, and I think we manage to build it step by step.
Alona Karavai: The second forum was organised as a kind of a partnership fair. It emerged people have a great actual need of building deliberate partnerships. Usually people partnering up right before the start of a project and they do not discuss their aims and values beforehand. This causes often the opposite of a long term and trustful partnership which would have the potential to create some impact. The format of the partnership fair will be further developed, so in Kramatorsk and Slovyansk participants will have more opportunities to present themselves, get to know each other and exchange.

Why have you chosen the topic “The development of local communities” for the upcoming meeting?
Alona Karavai: We actually asked the participants during the second forum in Ivano-Frankivsk 2015 where we already started to plan the next steps for 2016.
Olga Diatel: A lot of them mentioned they would like be involved somehow in the everyday life of communities in the town where the forum takes place and they want to share something with the residents. So we decided to give it a try and to work with local communities. And we see it anyway as an emerging topic which is quite important for our work.

Which social challenges you have in mind thinking about UkrianeLab?
Alona Karavai: I think that UkraineLab is facing social challenges such as the lack of communication between people and poor quality of communication. Obviously people do not communicate with each other even in small communities you can observe this phenomenon parties from different sectors of society or different social layers are not coming together.
Olga Diatel: In my opinion every place has its own potential. And it depends on the people who live there to which extent this potential is used. I would like to work with tools and ideas from the field of local actions and with capabilities that can develop the potential of a city or a village. My personal experience: it doesn’t matter whether you live in a city or in a village, if you have a good idea, people from all over the world come visit and join you. Each town or village can be the center of the world if you live there and develop it.

Why have you chosen Kramatorsk and Slavyansk for the next meeting?
Olga Diatel: “We should do like ordinary people: organise meetings in Kiev and house all participants in one hotel” – we often joke about how and especially where we organise our events. To be serious, in Kramatorsk, in this region we are running the projects “Rural Initiatives Workshop” and “Сultivator”. So we know a lot of locals and we are in close contact with them.
Kramatorsk and Slavyansk are located on the so-called periphery. Due to this fact there are a lot of challenges. On the one hand a lot of people have emigrated. On the other hand, in Kramatorsk you can feel some kind of energy and something positive is up. In fact there are a lot of problems also a lot of ideas appear. And you may become part of it.
UkraineLab will take place in two cities in the region: In Kramatorsk and Slavyansk. People will stay in both cities as well as the activities of working groups. We decided so because we cannot stay with 120 people in one city , so we use the potential of both cities. This is certainly not the easiest nor the most practical solution to organise and also for the participants. Yet it provides the opportunity to learn more about the region.

How exactly will the participants work with the local communities?
Olga Diatel: We will work in thematic groups and we organise workshops, which we call “local actions”. The workshops will combine theory and practice. We expect participants working hand in hand with local initiatives and organisations to make these “local actions” most effective.
UkraineLab is a format and network, which is shaped by its participants. We already ask in the application to bring in own ideas for workshops. And these workshops can engage a lot of people. So we are looking for people who understand this approach, who are open-minded, curious and like to create something together.
And don’t be afraid to visit Kramatorsk.

In September will UkraineLab meet in Berlin. Can you already tell us about it?
Alona Karavai: For now the working title is “Ukraine – the EU: Lessons that have (not) been learned”. We want to look at things that have changed in the discourse “Ukraine – European idea – the EU”. We will include also the topic “Subjectivity and introspection of Ukraine” as we find the discussion about the perception of Ukriane as an subject important in European context.  We want to consolidate most of the Ukrainian and Pro-Ukrainian figures in Berlin, in Germany, in order to create a significant event together. There are only few Ukrainian events in Berlin. And of course, we hope the Ukrainian organisations will be interested in exchanging experience, and willing to see how everything works in Berlin as well as to find partners. We would like to gain attention, we would like to be heard in Berlin.

You can find more information at and at Facebook UkraineLab. UkraineLab is part of the project “Dialogue for Change” which is designed to help overcome social cleavage by a strengthening of civil society and dialogue in Ukraine.

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UkraineLab: “We are not going to leave” | Ukraine

by Svitlana Oslavska, published in Ukrainian at on 6th of April 2015. Translation into English yb Liubov Hryb and proof reading by Maciej Głomb.

“Leave this country while you are young. Nothing will be changed here” – the taxi driver was convincing me on the way to the forum “Ukraine Lab: Best practices and interdisciplinary approaches to civil society and culture in crisis and post-crisis times”. A bit hesitantly – it is pretty hard to argue with taxi drivers – I answered that I have stuff to do in Ukraine. And meeting around fifty more people at the UkraineLab that also know why they are here, I was picturing our response to the taxi driver that would be more convincing.

People were coming to the forum in order to discuss how independent cultural initiatives can endure and what is the meaning of NGOs’ work during the war. This forum is the first step of the project Dialogue for Change, organised by German association MitOst and the Ukrainian organisation Insha Osvita.

Why is this event different from lots of other meetings and seminars, and why should we talk about it? Forum mediator Ivanna Chupak partially answered the first question. “There are many forums for activists in Ukraine, but it’s rarely possible to find a format comfortable for everyone. Such a mixture of disciplines and topics is enriching”. Indeed, the forum brought together leaders from the public sector such as Crimea SOS, AHALAR Center, “Fond Klychka” (“Klitschko’s Fund”) –, independent media and cultural initiatives such as Art-Dvir (Art Yard) in Buchach, online magazines Ufra and Khmarochos (Skyscraper), Kyiv Theatre for Dialogue and others), as well as representatives of government agencies like the Department of Culture of the Lviv city council. I want to answer as a member of the forum as to what is its meaning.

“We have changed a lot”

The main thing that happened at the UkraineLab is the manifestation of the fact that almost fifty cultural and public figures remain here, willing to change the country without pathos, with small steps. It’s like we say to each other as well as to the taxi driver, “We do not agree with the fact that” everything is as before and nothing has changed because we have changed a lot. UkraineLab can be called a statement that denies the gloom. We look into each other’s eyes and honestly say, “We do not plan to leave, at least for now”. And we can even give the examples: here is the organiser of the festival “Respublika” in Kamianets-Podilsky Andrii Zakharko who came back to Ukraine after living ten years abroad.

Alona Karavai, programme coordinator of the project Dialogue for Change: “We developed this project in May 2014 as a platform which would bring leaders from different sectors together, those who want to share ideas how to work in Ukraine under these conditions and those who have open eyes and hearts to think about it together. We wanted to understand what to do after the crisis in Ukraine in 2016 or 2020, but one event is not enough to find the answer. First, we need to work long and hard, analysing what we have done during the last 16 months, and only then we can talk about the future. At the next forum, we are going to think more about the future vision, and we plan to invite organisations that finance projects for them to see what we need.
The interest in Ukraine has increased in Germany where I work. This leads to the fact that organisations that have never worked in Ukraine before have no Ukrainian partners; they come to Ukraine with external concepts and leave after three months. These are wasted resources. The main value for us is networking. If there are horizontal contacts, there will be a vision and joint projects.”

According to everything that was said at the UkraineLab, we see three most necessary needs for activists:

  • to reflect critically on the activities of NGOs;
  • to plan cultural initiatives map of Ukraine;
  • and what seems to be an obvious thing, to create a dialogue between the conventional: the centre and the periphery, junior and senior generations, east and west of Ukraine.

Errors and cynicism of ogranisations operating in conflict areas

What is the sense of countless trainings, seminars, workshops, meetings, forums and a dozen of other “creative” forms on the use of Western donors in post-socialist countries? The lecture of Polish-Georgian activist Marta Gawinek-Dagargulia pushed all to reflect on the efficiency of what is done in the public sector. Marta works in Zugdidi near the Abkhaz-Georgian border, where there are 36 NGOs, and only three or four of them are active according to her.

The example of Georgia clearly shows errors and cynicism of organisations operating in conflict areas. Once the problems are solved, journalists and NGOs leave the territory although the activities of NGOs make sense only if conflict is prolonged and regular. Another problem is the real participation of those whom the projects are created for to help. Most organisations work off the grant, and it does not matter how people are actually involved and who is involved exactly. The third problem is the equitable distribution of resources. Western donors are willing to give huge grants, and small organisations are not able to get them. “Who is getting all those big sums of money? Where are the results of the projects funded by Western donors in Luhansk and Donetsk regions?” asked Jaroslav Minkin, Chairman of Youth Association “STAN”.

Another problem of NGOs in post-conflict areas is the exploitation of the victims. We understand that grant money has flowed to Ukraine now for projects related to internally displaced people. Speaking without euphemisms, there is demand for immigrants. Organisations must understand the responsibility of their activities not to evoke the feeling like “they came to us, used and threw us away”, told the Moderator of Ukraine Lab from Tbilisi Teona Dalakishvili.

A cultural map of Ukraine

The other question that the most cultural leaders are interested in is the need to realise what is going on in the cultural sphere in different parts of Ukraine. In other words, it is a good idea to have something like a cultural map of Ukraine. Ukrainian Cultural Network (the project of the Centre for Cultural Management in Lviv) made an attempt to implement it, but languidly and without enthusiasm. Today it is clear that low-cost flights in the near future will connect the East and the West, the North and the South, so we want to see what is happening and where, at least online. Maybe we need a social network just for cultural activists? Today, thanks to personal relationships, we learn what is happening in other regions in Ukraine, but still it is impossible to see the whole picture. After all, Ukraine is not unique in this regard, but that was us who desperately felt the need to communicate, know and understand how other cities and parts of the country live.

Another aspect of this problem is those cultural sector workers or activists who due to various reasons are now living at Crimea and on the occupied territories in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Now it just looks like we want to simply forget that they exist. However, the experience of the same Abkhazia shows, if we lose these contacts, a few years later no dialogue will be possible at all. At the same time, it is unclear how to speak to each other, how both parties should overcome emotions and despair.

“The goal of UkraineLab is to create common space for people who could share experiences and give people time to reflect on their location relative to others, feel that they are not alone”, says Anastasia Maksymova, the Moderator of UkraineLab.

Processes in Kiev are no less important than those occuring in the regions

UkraineLab introduced people from Chernihiv, Ostroh, Kremenchuh, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kyiv, and gave them time and space to talk. Kharkiv Theatre “Na Zhukah”, Kiev Theatre for Dialogue and Playback Theatre “Plemia” from Chernivtsi got to know what everyone else was doing. Ostroh media laboratory J-Lab acquainted with Ivano-Frankivsk independent magazine Ufra. There was a dialogue not only between people from different  regions. People from Kiev saw that we also have good initiatives in distant areas – where you cannot go to by fast trains – which develop the smaller cities in the regions and which did not tend to leave to the centre, to Kiev. It gives a chance to understand that processes in the capital are no less important than those occurring in the region of Rivne like the Buchach Art-Yard or Pluhaky craft farm.

“My German colleague from MitOst, who occasionally comes to Ukraine, said that earlier at the forums for organisations he saw that people were not willing to cooperate by analysing their body language. Now he has noticed that people are completely open and realise that we have to help each other. I would like it to turn into a culture of consolidation”, says Alona Karavai.

The fact that large organisations are willing to share experience and self-organised initiatives are developing once again proves that there are new meanings and actions emerging in Ukraine. At the same time, I felt the absence of the representatives of the platform developing the culture strategy “Culture-2025” and Culture Activists Congress, whose meeting was held at the same time as the UkraineLab. Despite all the talks of unity, it is clear that we continue to exist in isolation – although no longer alone, but separately in little groups.

UkraineLab is an interdisciplinary platform for a smart networking and cross-sectorial cooperation of change makers as well as a think tank where visions and innovations for civil society and culture in Ukraine can be born. In the pilot year of 2015 the programme started with two big cross-sectorial forums:
“UkraineLab: Best practices and interdisciplinary approaches in the civil society and culture for the (after)-crisis period” im March 2015 in Kiev and “UkraineLab: Visions for peace-building and the new role of civil society and culture” in September 2015 in Iwano-Frankiwsk. Besides of this two big cross-sectorial forums an event was organised in May 2015 in Cherksay dedicated especially for facilitators and educators: “Non-formal education. Methods. Reality. Future”.

Read more about the development of UkraineLab in 2016: coordinators Olga Diatel and Alona Karavei share specifics and characteristics of UkrianeLab, this year’s topics and expectations in Each town or villag can be the center of the world | Ukraine.


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Belarus’ most progressive activists: The “Zmahary”

by Konstanty Chodkowski, originated for the project and published at the same-named blog.

Some consider them to be national heroes. For others, they are an object of jokes and ridicule. Sometimes they are depicted as Belarusian hard-liners, sometimes as nationalists and internet trolls. Meet the “Zmahary”.

It is a relaxing evening conversation in a small kitchen in one of those typical Soviet panel flats. It is located in the center of the eastern Belarusian city of Vitebsk. After another cup of tea, Irina, a young Belarusian student, starts telling the story of the “Zmahary” and their tradition. The word comes from Belarusian “змагацца”, which basically means “to struggle”, “to wrestle” or “to fight for something”. What they do is “Zmaharstvo” – “zmaharing”, or simply “struggling”. From their point of view, it means to do everything possible to reach the goal that everybody is dreaming of: to live in a free and independent Belarus. But a lot of people consider this phenomenon to be just one more example of democratic and powerless trolling, especially on the internet.

To be a “zmahar” means to disagree on the current authoritarian regime and to act against it in every possible way. This definition was also recently widespread on the well-known blog “1863x” as the “Zmahar manifesto”. It states: “We don’t want to adapt to, neither to serve this regime. We want to keep our lives under our control. We don’t want to live under any master. We need nothing more than dignity and freedom”.

A meeting with a “Zmahar”

Vova in the Center of Modern Art in Vitebsk (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Vova in the Center of Modern Art in Vitebsk (Photo: Marco Fieber)

To find those “Zmahars” in daily life is not that hard. We found Vova. At first, he seems to be a blurry mixture of an activist being politically crazy, deeply engaged, and alternative. But after some time the picture gets clearer. Vova is an ordinary guy, living in Vitebsk since his early childhood. He is quite young, seriously-looking, well-educated and experienced and just started to work in the local public museum. What is unusual about him is his consistent use of the Belarusian language, even when his friends are asking questions in Russian. That must be hard to maintain. This is especially the case for Vitebsk, where almost every local speaks Russian in everyday life.
Vova describes himself as a cultural manager, not as a political activist. “My life experience is centered mostly on organizing cultural or mass events across the town. Concerts, festivals and banquets – this is my daily bread”. So where is “Zmaharstvo” in this kind of activity?

In talk with the author (Photo: Marco Fieber)

In talk with the author (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Center of Modern Art in Vitebsk, Vova shows his workplace. The museum is located in the city center, in an old, tsarist building. At the first glance, it looks like a quiet and peaceful place. This impression changes when you enter the rooms. Every one of them is full of different kinds of tools and artwork, designed and arranged in different ways. Every corner is full of paintings, every wall full of colors. One can feel the atmosphere of artistic rebellion. In such a small and narrow place they managed to set up a well-organized art manufactory, several galleries, permanent exhibitions and even a showroom.

“We don’t want this city to be boring”

The whole place was established by Vova’s friends – other “Zmahars”. They have created it from scratch. All they had in the beginning was an empty, decaying building. Vova denies working for the state, he prefers the term with the state: “In the past few years I had to learn to cooperate”. But “to cooperate” does not mean “to give up”, he adds. It means rather “to choose a more effective and more constructive way of changing the reality surrounding us”. That is what he is doing, running a modern, European art center in the unfavourable Belarusian environment. No grants, no modern financing. Just a low-budget state institution. “It’s very tough work, but we don’t want this city to be boring. Every citizen has the right to consume culture on the same level as they do in Paris or Berlin”, he says.

“In Belarus you can do everything you want – but not politics”

Vova arranges a meeting with one of his friends. Vitaliy is a former political activist, persecuted by the regime in the past, now developing his entrepreneurship and acting together with Vova in the civic initiative “Vitebsk4Me”. Vitaliy welcomes his guests in his soon-to-be-opened bar arranged in an Irish-pub-style. But still, the atmosphere is very similar to that in the Center of Modern Art: a creative mess.

Sitting in his future pub: Vitaliy (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Sitting in his future pub: Vitaliy (Photo: Marco Fieber)

It has been a long way there. Together with his friends, Vitaliy was engaged in several alternative, leftist initiatives. Then he joined Aleksandr Milinkevich’s team for the presidential campaign back in 2006. After that, Vitaliy was subjected to political persecution. A few times he was temporarily arrested for illegal political activities. After these experiences, he decided to change his way of acting and became a professional manager instead of a political activist. Now, Vitaly sees himself as an artist and event manager. He invested his time and money to establish a constructive civic organization that has soon turned into a prosperous business. Many other “Zmahars” chose similar paths.

More than trolling

It does not take much time to recognize that “Zmahars” are also objects of jokes and ridicules, especially on the internet. One of the most popular jokes is the following: “How many “Zmahars” does it take to change a bulb? – None, because “Zmahars” cannot change anything”. This view refers to the stereotype of an oppositionist who is active mostly during political meetings and in social media. It displays an image of activists focusing on criticizing the current Belarusian authorities while not having competitive political ideas. Their activities are considered as primitive “political trolling”. But that is not the whole truth. The “Zmahars” have simply changed their strategy of transforming the society. What connects Vova, Vitaliy and many other “Zmahars” in Belarus is their strong will to make this country a better place to live.

Young artists from Vitebsk paint their latest artwork. (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Young artists from Vitebsk paint their latest artwork. (Photo: Marco Fieber)

It doesn’t matter if their activities are about establishing a cultural center or a prospering pub. All they are doing is focused on the idea of deeper change. That is “Zmaharstvo” itself – forming a new space for freedom and civic society, for real social development. In a country like Belarus they are forced to do this on their own. To be more effective, they need to put away all the classic methods of political fight. As Vitaliy says: “You cannot exist in a permanent state of war against the government. Sooner or later you will realise that you need compromises to make it all work.”

Konstanty Chodkowski is a journalist for and member of the Polish Geopolitical Association.

The initiative and porject “Belarus Votes: 2015 Election Blog” was supported in the framewokr of MitOst memebers project. A 15-member editorial team of students,young journalists and election observers from Belarus, Germany and Poland traveled to Belarus to deliver a wide range of reports and authentic stories about the presidential election held on 11 October 2015 from on the ground. You can read more at The reports and stories are published in German, English, Polish and Russian. The project is a joint Belarusian-German-Polish initiative created by Libereco – Partnership for Humans Rights (Germany), StudAlliance with support of EOTP project (Belarus) and Common Europe Foundation / (Poland). Media partners are Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe (n-ost), Belarus in Focus and New Eastern Europe.

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#ElectricYerevan: A Youth-led Revolution in Armenia

by Grigor Yeritsyan, coordination team of Ecolab

It’s been a long way to understand that change for the better takes place only if we struggle for it. This was a challenging and a difficult journey of young Armenians and it has finally led to the #ElectricYerevan movement.

To begin with, like most of the countries that inherited Soviet legacy, Armenia has built its independence on the ashes of the Soviet Union. One of the key elements of the Soviet thinking has always been the idea that change is implemented from above and that the citizens should do nothing but respect imposed rules and decisions. This thinking has largely influenced the Armenian mentality. Many people remained sceptical about their role as “change-makers” in the society and preferred to hope for a better future without taking action for it.

And this is what #ElectricYerevan and similar youth-led civic movements came to change. The conventional wisdom that changes from below are not possible is no longer relevant in Armenia.

Background of #ElectricYerevan
During the last years there have been several successful civic movements and protests that have shaken Armenia. However, #ElectricYerevan became the largest and strongest civic resistance since Armenia’s independence. Unlike the political and partisan protests that are very common in Armenia’s political life, this non-partisan youth led movement managed to mobilize all the diverse segments of the society for a particular cause.

So, how did everything start? The civic unrest in Yerevan was sparked on June 19th, few days after the nationwide hike of 16.7% in electricity prices was announced. The raise in electricity prices was a request of Armenia’s electricity distribution company “Electric Networks of Armenia” which is owned by Russia’s state-owned energy holding Inter RAO.

The protests started on the Freedom Square, as protest usually do, but continued towards the Presidential Palace which is located on Yerevan’s central Baghramyan avenue. Most of the governmental buildings are located here – the Constitutional Court, the Parliament and the President’s residence. This street symbolizes executive, legislative and judicial branches of power in Armenia, which are equally corrupt. Soon, the riot police closed the way to hinder the protesters from reaching the presidential palace. In turn, the protesters began a sit-in protest right there, blocking one of the city’s main roads.
The information about the protests spread worldwide under the hashtag #electricYerevan after the police used water cannons to violently disperse the protest on June 23rd, arresting more than 230 people (soon almost all of them were to be released). The violence and injustice triggered bigger discontent and brought more and more people to the streets. According to different sources up to 20.000 people – mostly young people – joined the protests.

For 15 days Baghramyan Avenue remained blocked by the protesters … something that would hardly happen in any democratic country. The barricades built by the protesters became a dividing line between responsible citizens symbolizing the will of young Armenians to live in a better country on one side, and the police – a symbol of a corrupt and weak political system on the other side.

Joining the Protest
I came back to Armenia from a working trip on the morning of June 23rd – the very day when the police exercised power against the peaceful protesters. From early morning on I have received several calls and messages from friends and colleagues who either suffered from the violence or have been detained. Since then I have joined the protests and spent two weeks full of unity, consolidation and celebration of success.
As a youth worker and civil society representative I could have only dreamed to see as many different young people united for a common cause … liberals, conservatives and nationalists, partisan and non-partisan youngsters, members of NGOs and students, locals and foreigners, representatives of the business sector and celebrities, young people from cities and rural areas. Many would argue that everyone had different goals for being there, but at the end of the day we were there to protect our right to a better future in Armenia.
For Armenia’s authorities it was not clear where these young people come from. Mostly open-minded, smart, intelligent, balanced, tolerant, educated and creative – an image of young persons that the state never promoted. On the contrary: for decades, the state has sponsored educational, political, social and cultural systems attempting at suppressing the independent thinking of Armenian youth, killing any initiative, innovative thinking and developing stereotypes. They have been always afraid of active citizens and tried hard to form a spirit of indifference towards the societal problems. Eventually, they failed!

During the half a month I have protested together with my friends and likeminded people, I’ve seen a very high degree of empathy and solidarity. It’s not easy to describe the positive atmosphere at the occupied Baghramyan Avenue. People were bringing food, providing each other with water, cleaning the area, taking care of and supporting each other. There was permanently music and dancing going on in order to keep the spirit of unity. The protests were very inclusive and everyone was welcome to join. In a couple of days the Baghramyan Avenue became a good place to meet good people, to talk about politics, to share ideas about the future of Armenia and to make new friends.

What Did We Ask for?
From the very beginning the main demand was to void the decision on the raise of the electricity prices sponsored by the President of Armenia and to introduce reforms to the energy sector. After the illegal violence committed by the police, a new demand was introduced: to impartially investigate the events and punish all those policemen who exercised violence against peaceful protesters. There were many other demands voiced by different participants of the protests, varying from the president’s resignation to stopping corruption, eliminating the criminal oligarchy and injustice in the country. However, the main official requests remained connected to the electricity prices.

The Government Finally Reacts
Very soon the authorities reacted on the massive protests taking place in the heart of the city. The President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan has unsuccessfully tried to calm down the protesters. He has announced that these protests are very important and that they show the trust that had been developed between the police and the protesters, the level of development of the civil society in Armenia and how important it is to respect the values of democracy.

He offered the Armenian-Russian intergovernmental committee to be in charge of an audit of the Russian electricity supplier. The president also suggested that the government of Armenia takes the burden of this increase on itself by paying the difference from the state budget until the results of the audit are conducted and published. He missed a little nuance – citizens of Armenia form the state budget by paying taxes.

This reaction of the President was not considered as a temporary victory and the invitation to a dialogue with the government was rejected. The president offered to meet six representatives of the protesters, however, the crowd refused to appoint them and asked the president to come himself or to connect live through web streaming. Neither of this happened. The invitation was considered a manipulation aiming to delay the price increase and to stop the protests. Generally, there was still a huge discontent and mistrust towards any announcement coming from the authorities. It was not possible to celebrate any victory as none of the demands were met. At the same time we could not trust any Armenian-Russian intergovernmental committee or any unbiased audit, taking into account the level of corruption both in Armenian and Russian governments.

When it comes to the police, their behaviour has radically changed. After the violent attack on the protesters on the 23rd of June, the police reconsidered its aggression and tried to cooperate with the citizens.
The police was surprisingly calm and peaceful and took the reaction of the public and the international community on the violence against activists into account. They even promised to refund all the broken equipment and lost items of the journalists and to start an investigation regarding the civilian policemen exercising violence. Later on some cases were filed against certain policemen, however, none of them had any serious impact. There is not much hope that any of them will be brought to court in the end.

Who Was Behind the Protests?
It is not a surprise that, from the very start, the media and the international community were looking for forces that might be behind the protests. And indeed there were driving forces behind … the corrupt Armenian government, the non-accountable and intransparent Russian-owned company and local oligarchs have triggered the protests themselves and have driven the people to the streets. They were the forces behind all the mess. Other than that, the civic movement started as and remained a highly non-political and non-partisan one. Political parties were not involved and any efforts to take a lead or benefit from the situation were mostly unsuccessful. There has been no sign of foreign involvement, even though especially the Russian and pro-Russian media were eagerly trying to prove otherwise. The demonstrators have always denied any links either to foreign organizations or to opposition parties in Armenia.

The Russian Factor
The protests in Armenia were never anti-Russian, although it was clear from the beginning that protesters accused the Russian company for mismanagement and money laundering. However, thanks to the Russian media and the Russian propaganda machine, there have been moments when the protests could have been turned into anti-Russian ones. From the very beginning, Russian mainstream media was spreading misinformation about the events – ridiculously suspecting an American involvement.

After failing to find any American or foreign trace, they have been trying hard to make comparisons between the Armenian protests and Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement. Most of the main Russian media outlets have visited the protests. But after biased and falsified coverage most of them were not allowed to approach the protests anymore. At the same time there was little coverage by the European media, which allowed the Russian propaganda to conquer the world’s media space and discredit the protests.

Additionally it is worth to mention that the poor economic situation in Armenia, the social inequalities, the corruption, the economic dependence, the social injustice and the oligarchic system are mostly associated with Russia and the predecessor Soviet Union. Many news agencies pointed out that this reaction of Russian-media showed that the Kremlin, and particularly Mr. Putin is nervous about losing Armenia from its traditional imperial domain.

The Gender Aspect
There is another interesting aspect of #ElectricYerevan I would like to talk about. Along with male protesters, female protesters have equally struggled day and night. This wouldn’t be an important thing to mention for a country that has equal gender treatment. But in Armenia, where women are underrepresented in almost all the areas of public life, this was a significant step. This was a fight that really involved everyone, regardless of gender, religious or political views. Armenian women and girls have demonstrated courage and strength, redefining their roles as citizens. Some of the dances that have been traditionally performed by men were also performed by women during the celebration of small successes. The same regarding musical instruments. By occupying the main street, this movement literally created a public space, where everyone could express him- or herself, organize something and be treated equally.

What Was Achieved in the End?
There is short-term and long-term impact of the movement. Practically, the government promised to conduct an international audit of the company and start an investigation. The decision on the hike has been suspended for now. On the long term the protests showed that people would no longer tolerate the sense of impunity of their authorities.

The youth-led revolution was not only against the government, corruption and social injustice but also against conventional thinking. It was a mental revolution and a wake-up call to the society that young Armenians take charge of.

More information and updates about #ElectricYerevan you can find at
lizenzbild“#ElectricYerevan: A Youth-led Revolution in Armenia” by Grigor Yeritsyan ist lizenziert unter einer Creative Commons Namensnennung – Nicht kommerziell – Keine Bearbeitungen 4.0 International Lizenz.

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Refugees in Gevgelija – Somewhere between the past and the future | Macedonia

by Slavica Gjorgieva, Photos by Snezana Dzorleva, Nikola Oprov, Stefan Rusev and Mite Velkov.

I am from Gevgelija. Where that is? Follow the latest news and you’ll find out.

Gevgelija is a city in the very south of Macedonia, nearby the Greek border. The town is well known for hot summery temperatures and also for it’s calmness and quietness. The citizens of Gevgelija are widely known for their generosity and kindness. The town is quiet small: we are 20.000 inhabitants living in an area of 485 km². If you live in a bigger city, Gevgelij is just like one of your many city distircts and neighborhoods. In these days Gevgelij is not calm anymore, nor quiet, maybe just like one of your neighborhoods… .

Children of refugees playing games with a photographer. Photo by Snezana Dzorleva .

Children of refugees playing games with a photographer.
Photo: Snezana Dzorleva

During the last months, we have witnessed thousands and thousands of destinies. Families, children, babies, young, educated, non-educated, middle-aged men, tired women … . Some of them have found their happiness around Gevgelija, I’ve heard of some mixed marriages, while others have continued to write their stories somewhere else … .

Child at the railway station in Gevgelija. Photo by Nikola Oprov.

Child at the railway station in Gevgelija.
Photo: Nikola Oprov

In general we sympathise with the refugees and we try to walk a mile in their shoes. We try to imagine: How it is to leave your home, your life, your dreams and to be forced to dive into the unknown, for good or for the worse. From day one, local people were sharing water, bread and other elementary goods with the people who crossed their daily routine. The local people are willing to help. Well, most of us are, but there are also those who try to benefit from this situation. But, there are just too many refugees and Gevgelija is too small and not well enough equipped to face this situation alone.

The bridge between the border and Gevgelija. Photo by Snezana Dzorleva.

The bridge between the border and Gevgelija. Photo: Snezana Dzorleva.

Every winter our local and national governments are caught by surprise by the snow in the middle of January. The same thing happened now – they were caught by surprise by the refugee waves in September this year – after one year, more or less, of shadow transit that they were denying to officially acknowledge until a tragedy happened – there were numerous accidents on the railway track – and they could not ignore it anymore. And what is even more alarming, they were surprised two months after the legal 72-hours of transit was allowed by them.

Tracks and railway station in Gevgelija. Photo by Stefan Rusev.

Tracks and railway in Gevgelija. Photo:Stefan Rusev.

So, instead of put up a decent refugee camp near the town, the migrants were sent to spend their time during their short stay directly in the heart of Gevgelija. First, they occupied the public area near the railway and bus station. Then, they began to set their tents in public parks and sometimes on the streets. This became intimidating for the local citizens, because it was getting harder to move around the town. People had to “fight” for a train or bus ticket, although there was a train transport organised for refugees only. It was and still is impossible to get a taxi for a local drive.

Town park in Gevgelija. Photo by Nikola Oprov.

Town park in Gevgelija. Photo Nikola Oprov.

The dissatisfaction culminated when the number of refugees increased and spread around Gevgelija and when they began to settle on private properties and in private building entrances, leaving garbage behind or often using them as public bathrooms. Luckily, so far, no bad incident happened – no fights, no serious robberies. But, when surrounded by so many unknown people, regardless of their background stories, I became scared and worried. And I know my friends were, too.

Street in Gevgelija between the bus station on the left and the tracks on the right. Photo by Mite Velkov.

Street in Gevgelija between the bus station on the left and the tracks on the right.
Photo Mite Velkov.

After strong social media reactions and continuous daily chit-chat on this topic, now refugees are not allowed to enter Gevgelija anymore. They spend their days and nights in the so-called “camp” between the Greek-Macedonian border and the town. Here they have to wait patiently for their documents and after that, they have to take a double-priced train or bus to Tabanovce to cross the Macedonian-Serbian border.

Entrance to Gevgelija, these days known as the “bus street”. Photo by Snezana Dzorleva.

Entrance to Gevgelija, these days known as the “bus street”. Photo Snezana Dzorleva.

Why so-called-camp? Because a tent is a good part-time solution for the summer. Here comes the rainy September, almost looking straight into the eye of the windy souht-east winter, a tent reminds of a bad movie you would like to turn off!

Refugees turning a gas station into a camping area. Photo by Stefan Rusev.

Refugees turning a gas station into a camping area. Photo Stefan Rusev.

The refugee camp is open for donations. They are coming in numerous forms from individuals and NGOs – water, food (that has to pass the adequate inspection), clothes, blankets, toys, cosmetics. Usually they are not enough. People who have visited the camp – you need a special permission to go inside – say it is very organised, with lot of activists from UNHCR, UNICEF, Red Cross and other organisations. They have doctors in the camp, and also, there are separate tents for families, for mothers and children and so on. It is well secured with civil and military police. It seems decent. Let’s just hope that it will be prepared for winter in time and that it has enough capacity for all the refugees.

Refugees with a backpack full of hopes and dreams. Photo by Snezana Dzorleva.

Refugees with a backpack full of hopes and dreams. Photo Snezana Dzorleva.

All in all, the situation for refugees has been improved compared to previous months. It is good, but it can be much better. It will not pass by soon, so it must be taken  seriously on global level. Obviously, we cannot stop the war in the Middle East. But we can do the next best thing and find a solution which will fit all the parties involved. Building walls ins’t one!

(Many thanks to my fellow-citizens who have allowed me to use their photo material to illustrate in this article.)

Slavica is a young activist from Gevgelija, Macedonia, with previous experience as a writer on society related topics. She is active in various NGOs, including one she founded herself. She was a participant in the Balkans, let’s get up! programme in 2011, when she and her Bosnian partner implemented the project “Don’t judge me” – a project about ethnic (in)tolerance and youth activism in both societies. Since then she supports BLGU as a mentor, always available to help new participants`s personal growth.

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Moldotopia – A Gleam of Hope at the EU’s edge? | Moldova

by Valeria Șvarț-Gröger and Julian Gröger, first published on Translation into English by Martin Hofmann.


In his magnificent science fiction novel “Ecotopia” Ernest Callenbach has imagined a society in which resilience and community are a lived reality. Of course in his time and circumstances he chose the North-West of the U.S. as a scene. Where would such a place with such a promising future be located today? Maybe Buthan or Bolivia – but within Europe? Where could one imagine a profound change until the year of 2040? Resilience and inner peace would be just two catchwords. Which country would you count on?

It would rather be a small country, so marvelous changes could quickly be set into practice. This country should have good soil and many people experienced in agriculture. It should not be too industrialized, and less embedded into global substance flow. And of course it should possess enough natural resources in order to sustain its energy. Maybe Austria? But is it possible to realize such a utopia within the EU? And is it not a fact that Austrians use up too many resources in 2014?

We count on Moldova, or Moldtopia as we call our vision. Moldova – the Republic of Moldova, to be exact – is situated between Romania and Ukraine, at the edges of the European Union and has around 3.5 million inhabitants. Its capital is Chișinău (to be pronounced as kee-shee-now). On an area slightly bigger than Belgium the population is a one-fifth of western-Germany. The preconditions for a development towards Moldtopia 2014 are as follows:

Moldova owns very good soil. In former times Moldova had been, together with Georgia, the fruit and vegetable garden of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately due to this fact just 9% of the country’s surface is still covered by forests. Moldovans are dwelling with a much smaller amount of energy and consumption than people in Western Europe. Around 40% are active in agriculture, many of them in a semi-subsistant way. For political reasons the Soviet Union did not initiate large scale industry in Moldova as there were concerns that the country could reunite with Romania. This low level of industrialisation is still considered a disadvantage in 2014, but from our point of view it will soon turn into benefit. In matters of energy the country is still dependent on Russian gas, but the potential for solar and residue-biomass energy is tremendous. Most Moldovans are bilingual (Russian-Romanian) and more and more learn to see it as an advantage rather than as a burden. Romanian and Russian-Soviet culture with all their treasures are deep-seated in the cultures literature, cuisine or language.

But what exactly is Moldotopia and what do we want to achieve on this piece of land until the year of 2040? Moldtopia nourishes its population with ecological and regional cropping. The bicycle is the one means of transportation used most often. Within the cities some trolley coaches are going, for longer distances the railway transportation is electrified and well developed. Small neighborhood communities are living, working, eating and celebrating together in the cities. The majority of the buildings is erected with regional building materials. Moldovans are own a world-wide recognition for wood-straw-clay constructions. 40% of the country’s surface is again covered with forests. 10% are areas saved from human intervention. Agroforestry has become the established form of agriculture. There is no erosion of the soil and water from every source can be drunk. There is a feeling of abundance rather than one of deficit. Children are the most valued aspects of live and the whole community is taking care of them. Those are just some aspects of Moldtopia.

We, the Moldovan NGO EcoVisio, together with young people are working on the invention and realization of the Moldotopia-vision. Young people, of course, mostly have another idea of their country’s future. Political debates often focus on the strategic orientation towards either Russia or the European Union, whereas a form of regional pride is not very common. People have an emotional connection towards Romania or towards Russia on are arguing about this bias. The conflict on Transnistria interferes with the concentration on the own development, too.

Our programme “activeEco – Sustainibility in Action” adds new elements into this situation: What, if my future would take place here in Moldova and not on Rome, Berlin or Moscow? What, if our region could be a model for others? The requirements do exist and each year around 30 alumni of the programme come along, being able to spread the word about Moldotopia. We are in the year of 2014 and the power of the vision along with the energy of young people can lead us faster and faster to Moldotopia 2040. The joy of anticipating the future and a community in which big madcap ideas can be said and will be understood – that is, what we are working on. For the moment you still here rather of the conflict on Transnistria or the “Europe’s poorhouse”. Be curious what kind of news you will hear about Moldova twenty years from now…

Support: Eco-House as Traningspace in Moldova
Become part of building an ecological training space in Moldova to promote education. The moldovian NGO asks you kindly to support and help them to build an Eco-training center in Eco-Village Moldova. In the future this will be the home for activEco, one cooperationprogramme of the Theodor-Heuss-Kolleg. “We are collecting funds on betterplace. We’d be very grateful if you could share this link in your networks or even participate in the fundraising campaign yourself. Any small donation or share will be greately appreciated!”
Share and donate here

What has been achieved so far?
In just over a year we managed to build a 3-room straw-bale workshop, start an eco-club at the local school, plant over 300 walnut trees and engage over 200 volunteers from Moldova and abroad. Multiple activEco networking meetings and alumni actions already took place at the Eco-village Moldova site as well.
What we need your support for?
This year we need just a little more help to finish the 3-room straw-bale “workshops” building and to equip it with basic amenitiesto be used for seminars and technical trainings for up to 25 people.
Support and

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Visiting Ivano-Frankivsk – Crossing the Russian-Ukrainian Border | Ukraine

by Sergei Shalamov, member of the board of MitOst e.V.

Almost a year ago the board of MitOst made an important decision to hold the 13th International MitOst-Festival in Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine. The decision, which is both important and difficult, well matched with the political and social realities of the new world we have been living in for a year and a half. For us, it was and still is an invitation to a deliberate, fruitful dialogue based on mutual respect, to reflect and to find solutions for old and new challenges, as well as participate actively in reducing the degree of separation in the society and in returning the situation to a peaceful course.

The board of MitOst is frank to a dialogue about the decision to hold the festival in Ukraine. Safety of participants of the festival is an important criterion when choosing a venue for the festival. Many facilitators and coordinators of cooperation programmes and projects of MitOst regularly travel to Ukraine for seminars and other events. Therefore, we can say with confidence that our routes are fine-tuned. And in order to convince those who are particularly incredulous, I decided to demonstrate with my own example that fears and nervousness, cultivated by media and the Internet, are often groundless, and even men between the age of 25 to 60 can enter the territory of the neighboring state without any problems. Thus, on June 6th I arrived in Ukraine for the first time to see how life in Ivano-Frankivsk is like, how our festival team is doing and imagine what can be expected for the September.

What is special in Ivano-Frankivsk?
It is a city with 350 years of history, one of cultural centers of the country with a rich heritage and great potential. The town isn’t big – about 230 thousand inhabitants – and very cozy. The majestic church stands here side by side with the giant Soviet-built office building and the streets wander between the epochs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Republic of Poland, the Soviet Union and independent Ukraine. But the most important are the people who live in Ivano-Frankivsk. Three days are not enough to get to know the character of a city and it’s inhabitants. But I may say with certainty that the youngsters of Ivano-Frankivsk, who simply joking on controversial topics (“I am a banderovka” = “I am a follower of nationalistic movement”), do not seem amenable to political influence, probably because of being as yet light-minded. The young people remain curious, sociable and active, with a strong motivation to make their country better. And, on the other hand, I was greatly impressed by local entrepreneur and public agents, who are ready to work in a completely new format, gushing with ideas and, for sure, loving their town and developing it. After the so-called “Perm cultural project” in Russia was shut down and cooperation between the government, the society and business in the field of “non-state” culture has been curtailing the development in Ivano-Frankivsk is to me like a breath of fresh air and poignant nostalgia at once (Video about Ivano-Frankisvk).

What is important to know?
Visiting MitOst-Festival is safe. And no matter what your nationality is and what language you speak. Obviously, the south-eastern parts of the country, in which military actions are being conducted, are unwanted to go (check  travel and safety information, here you’ll find the information from the Federal Foreign Office about traveling to Ukriane). But in Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, as in much regions of the country, people are living a peaceful life: getting married, reading books, having fun on Saturday nights, working weekdays and so on, and wishing you all the same. During a few days of my stay, I have never felt a negative attitude towards myself as a citizen of the Russian Federation: you’re free to ask people in the streets for directions or order dinner at a restaurant, or go with car sharing to another city, with talking Russian, and they’ll tell you, in fact – start a conversation, and probably won’t even recognize you are a foreigner without a pass check because it is not obvious that you are not by origin from those regions of Ukraine, where people traditionally speak more Russian.

What is the procedure of crossing the border of Ukraine?
Nothing extraordinary, but some special procedure runs for the Russians. You will need a foreign passport, an invitation from the local partner of MitOst indicating the purpose of your visit, booking a return ticket and a hotel reservation, an insurance policy, as well as some money with you in order to prove your ability to pay during your stay. Copies of the invitation and the other papers should be enough, but you’d rather have “hard” copies as well. New is the necessity of holding an interview before you’re allowed to cross the border. In my case, three cute border officers in a separate room asked me to show all the necessary papers, and five minutes later I was easily getting my luggage.

Won’t there any problems appear when crossing the border on the way to Ukraine or returning home?
No. Border Guard Service of the Russian Federation in Vnukovo was barely interested in a direction, or a purpose of my trip. Despite the political difficulties, our countries remain in close contact, and citizens of both countries are constantly crossing the common border.

On behalf of the Board of MitOst I kindly invite you to participate and join the 13th International MitOst-Festival, which will take place from the 23rd until the 27th  of September 2015. Seeing is believing. Welcome!

If you have any questions, want to share your story of travel to Ukraine or leave a comment, you can contact me via shalamov(at)

Visiting Ivano-Frankivsk – Crossing the Russian-Ukrainian Border by Sergei Shalamov (MitOst e.V.) ist lizenziert unter einer Creative Commons Namensnennung – Nicht kommerziell – Keine Bearbeitungen 4.0 International Lizenz.

The International MitOst Festival is a meeting point for all those who are interested in cultural and civic exchange in Europe and its neighbouring regions. It brings together thinkers and activists, experts and newcomers. A diverse programme with more than 80 events provides space for networking, learning, reflection and inspiration. Since its premier in the Hungarian city Pécs in 2003, the festival has been migrated through Europe and taken place every year in another city. Check out the website
MitOst promotes cultural exchange and active citizenship in Europe and its neighbouring regions. With 1.400 members in 40 different countries as well as with various partners we are part of a dynamic European network. We organise international programmes and projects and serve as a platform for new forms of social engagement and projects. The annual International MitOst Festival brings our network together.

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The Voice of Civil Society in Armenia

by Diana Chobanya, coordination team of EcoLab

We are living in an increasingly globalized world, where walls are crumbling and falling every day. The fall of barriers between nations exposes us to global diversity and variety. We need to embrace this multiculturalism and human variety in order to keep up with the rest of the global community. Globalization and technical advancements have undoubtedly accelerated and improved the way we vote, protest, learn and live. These developments have led to the strengthening of civil society in almost all parts of the world.

In Armenia, the voice of civil society is becoming louder and more confident, thus contributing to democratic governance, transparency and participatory politics. The unrestricted voice of Armenian civil society can now be heard on the streets of Yerevan, in marzes (regions of Armenia) and all over social media platforms. The vestige of Soviet authoritarian and paternalistic political processes is however unfortunately still evident in Armenia. Its consequence is ruthless and shocking social injustice, and persistent violation of human rights and democratic values resulting in social apathy and emigration.
In the current situation, education and empowerment of the young generation is one of the best recipes for bringing about positive change. In order to be active members of the global community, young people need to be well informed about global challenges, respectful of other cultural and religious practices, and have a decent understanding of their role as change-makers in our society.

RA Ministry of Education and Science introduced a reform called “Education Quality and Relevance” to develop the post-Soviet educational system in newly-independent Armenia. The reform responded to outdated educational standards and textbooks, inconsistencies in assessment, and the predominance of teacher-centred teaching methods (Tovmasyan & Thoma, 2008). In 2000, the RA Ministry of Education and Science decided to amend the state curricula for secondary education by adding “human rights, civic education, and state and law”. Starting with 2001 these “legal block” subjects were taught in secondary school for eighth to tenth grades (Gyulbudaghyan, Petrosyan, Tovmasyan & Zohrabyan, 2007, p. 21).

Studies have shown that civic education is no longer an abstract subject that teachers struggle to comprehend. The Ministry of Education and Science has introduced informative and useful textbook and thematic trainings/seminars for teachers. Nonetheless, the subjects they have introduced fail to equip students with civic skills, emphasizing only the knowledge of rights and responsibilities. The Citizen’s Awareness and Participation in Armenia Survey (IFES, 2003) confirms that young adults (18-25 years old) are not only less interested and involved in politics but also have a lower level of civic participation that those aged 26 and above. It can therefore be concluded that there is a gap in the civic education of the young people in Armenia which consequently leads to low social consciousness and awareness and an even lower level of civic activism.

The Ministry has acknowledged the need for high-quality civic instruction which would fill the gap in civic education in the Armenian context. Nevertheless, it has failed to take adequate measures and, as a result, young Armenians lack civic competencies and skills. Fortunately, the civil sector has taken over and started offering civic trainings, courses and seminars which combine civic “knowledge” with its practical application. These educational measures use synergies from formal and non-formal education to deliver breath-taking content. The hallmark of these courses is that they not only enhance the learners’ knowledge about civil society, but also shape learners’ civic competencies and promote active citizenship and democratic values. EcoLab, the active citizenship project that I coordinate is a vivid illustration of how an NGO project can empower and educate young people more efficiently than the school curriculum on civic education. I myself am a “product” of EcoLab, which provided the civic education that the educational system did not.

Overall, I am hopeful that similar projects, which nurture learners’ civic literacy and emphasize such core concepts as democracy, rights and responsibilities, will be offered more widely. Also, I hope that by that time the Ministry of Education will appreciate both independent and autonomous learning and higher civic participation, and include both in its comprehensive list of educational objectives.

Diana Chobanyan is part of the coordination team of EcoLab. EcoLab empowers young Armenians to change their local community by fostering sustainable development. Participants implement their own projects in small teams in their cities and villages. These projects focus on sustainable local economy, non-formal education and community mobilisation. EcoLab is an cooperation program of Theodor-Heuss-Kolleg. More information on

lizenzbild The Voice of Civil Society in Armenia by Diana Chobanyan (MitOst e.V.) ist lizenziert unter einer Creative Commons Namensnennung – Nicht kommerziell – Keine Bearbeitungen 4.0 International Lizenz.

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The Simple Truth | Egypt

by Reem Kassem, Founding Director, Agora Arts & Culture, Egypt

And suddenly everybody is speaking about sexual harassment in Egypt. As if it wasn’t there years and years ago. As if no other horrible incidents happened over the past years. And as if we surprisingly discovered the horrible manners in the society yesterday! People on the media are wondering why and why and why! Funny!

Sexual harassment has been there since years. And due to numerous reasons people weren’t able to discuss it openly. Society refused to admit that there is a manners’ problem not only reflected in the increased number of sexually harassed women, but mostly in the general behavior of the society. And now after issuing a law against sexual harassment, more and more people are admitting it and started the discussion. That is a positive sign, because starting the discussion might mean that the issue will be seriously addressed.

“Any negative trait that arises in a society is a result of its failure to meaningfully communicate, express and engage”

More than one year ago I wrote about the relation between sexual harassment and lack of arts education in schools on my Blog. And stated in my post, that 80% of sexual harassment incidents is due to the lack of meaningful channels for self-expression in the society. I observed the behavior of the little boys in the school next door everyday in the morning before going to work. And made a little research about the social and economic conditions of these kids in comparison to others same age but engaged in social and cultural activities.

Kids from disadvantaged communities find it cool to tease girls on the streets, they find it self-satisfying to harass a girl or even a woman and exercise power in public. This is due to complex reasons, be it a reflection of what they see at home, education, culture, but mainly their failure to meaningfully express themselves. So what they simply do is express it negatively through sexual harassment, violence, gangsters’ activities, escaping from schools etc. All they understand is that they are heroes among their society by doing that.

They grow up having learned that this is the only way accessible for them to express and engage in the society. They haven’t seen any music classes at school to discover the world of cultural institutions and start learning an instrument or go to a concert. They haven’t seen drama or poetry or even attended a painting class. This is the difference between these kids and their fellows who could afford going to private schools; thus meaningfully engage in the society. And this is the difference between men who are upset now that sexual harassment is becoming more and more a habit in the society, and their fellow men who exercise it and who always accuse women for being women.

The simple truth is that sexual harassment and any other negative behavior is not going to disappear or even decrease without teaching the society how to engage and express meaningfully. This means finding alternative ways to communicate rather than negatively behaving. And this is neither gonging to happen without having a sufficient number of cultural engaging activities, and a reasonable number of operating cultural institutions with venues where the society can meet, engage and exchange. Nor is it going to happen when education is lacking the food for mind and soul.

No creativity and innovation … No math and science
No culture and arts … No manners and positive behaviors
That’s the simple truth

Reem Kassem is a performing arts curator and festival manager working at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Center. She founded Agora for Arts and Culture, an independent arts education institution. Reem is the Head of Performing Arts Programming at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Center, where she coordinates the monthly program and the performing arts festivals of the Bibliotheca. She established AGORA for Arts and Culture in 2011, an independent organization undertaking the 2020 Development Matrix; a program connecting arts practice and non-formal education with social development. In 2012, she established AGORA International, a new branch based in Marseille.
Visit her Blog: